Susan J Tweit Blog Feed

Restoring a Yard

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Progress on my house and backyard is stalled right now. The backyard is still partly torn up from trenching for my new underground electric service because we're waiting for the City to re-connect my raw water line (Cody has two distinct sets of water delivery pipes, treated for in the house and raw or untreated for irrigation water).


(Backyard destruction: The photo at the top of the post is my contractor, Jeff Durham, smiling from the trench he just dug, and his son, Allen, on the left holding the sawzall for cutting tree roots. In the background are Sam and Dustin, hooking up the new electric service and meter box to my house.) 


In the house, we're waiting for my plumber to rough in the fixtures for my en-suite bathroom. 


While I'm practicing patience--never my best talent--I'm getting started on the front yard, which is basically on the lawn-and-shade-tree landscaping plan.


There's one skinny flower border along the fence by the garage, and an oblong bed in the middle of the other side of the lawn with a teenage spruce tree beginning to shade it. Both are over-run by lawn grasses, with numerous volunteer Russian-olive sprouts plus a few Canada thistle sprouts too, just to liven things up. 



Lots o' lawn--boring! But what are those green lines? Read on... 


As you can imagine, I'm planning a complete yard makeover. I envision colorful landscaping that uses less water, provides more habitat for pollinators and songbirds, and is less welcoming to ambling deer and munching cottontail rabbits. No easy task, but I'm beginning to see a plan. 


Inspired by two small, triangular, rock-edged beds (also over-run by lawn) on either side of the drive where it meets the front sidewalk, I decided to plant a rock garden along the front edge of the yard between one of the new access paths (outlined in green above) and the sidewalk along the street. 


My neighbor Jane Dominick donated two wheelbarrow loads of local rock from her yard, and my friend Connie Holsinger, visionary co-founder of the Habitat Hero project, gave me a generous gift certificate to High Country Gardens.



I ordered more than two dozen native plants plus a few non-native lavender (which will serve as deer and rabbit-deterrent), piled the rock near the rock-garden-to-be, and thought for a couple of weeks. 


Yesterday afternoon, I got started laying out plants, and cutting through dead turf to plant them. I worked for a couple of hours, and then, before I had entirely worn myself out, I cleaned and stowed my tools, and went for my regular Sunday run. 



The bricks mark the edge of a new path; the rock garden extends from the path to the sidewalk, to the existing triangular bed--also newly planted, and to the driveway.


After work this evening, I took some time to admire what I had done, and to start placing rocks. I'm going to need a lot more of them, and more plants, but with plants and gardening, I can be patient.


Renovating this yard is a long project, but oh, how rewarding it will be!  



The future rock garden viewed from the other direction. The new plants are in dark circles of removed turf.


In the meantime, I am inspired by the sagebrush desert just outside town where I run. This year's spring green-up is the best in decades, colored by the prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and dotted by an ever-changing show of wildflowers. 



The Shoshone River and its canyon from my running route. 


I am taking notes and photos, and planning to collect seed for my rock garden. Who could resist attempting to grow these charming and beautiful native mat-plants? Not I!



Hooker's sandwort (Areneria hookeri) with its starry flowers, all of two or three inches tall



Stemless four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), a minature blast of spring sunshine



Waxleaf penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), not a mat-plant, but oh, that blue!, growing in front of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. Wyomingensis).

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Wildflowers for Mother's Day

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I had a lovely Mother's Day, and I hope you did too. Mine was quiet and mellow, just the way I like it: I spent time with friends, caught up with my family, and then worked in my yard, planting new plants, grubbing out invasive weeds, and seeding in the beginning of a native meadow in the backyard that last week was torn up for my new underground electric line. 

After I finished playing with plants--something that never fails to make me happy--I headed out for my usual Sunday evening run.

I can't say that running makes me happy the way working with plants does, but that particular form of self-torture, er, exercise, does get me outside and into the nearby wild, which always lifts my spirits. And once I finish the run, I feel quite virtuous. (And completely worn out.) 

I hadn't been out for a run in almost two weeks because of travel and house renovation, so I wasn't sure whether the spring wildflowers would still be dotting the sagebrush outside town. 

Indeed they were: Oh, not the same Nuttall's violets, wild parsley, and spiny phlox that were blooming a few weeks ago. The next wave of wildflowers had taken over the spring bloom. 

I spotted the creamy flower clusters of wild onion first.

I think this is Allium brandegeei, Brandegee's onion

And then this cute yellow composite (daisy-family plant) with its mats of thumbnail-sized fuzzy leaves and outsized flower heads with notched rays.

(I haven't identified this one yet.) 

And these evening primrose blossoms, opening to invite late-flying pollinators in for a meal. 

This is probably whitestem evening primrose, but I'm not entirely certain

And who could miss the brilliant scarlet bracts on this indian paintbrush! The prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) next to it on the left is a big part of what makes the landscape in the photo at the top of the post look so green. 

Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia

As I huffed and puffed my way through my 3.5-mile route, I spotted more wildflowers: chrome yellow stoneseed, ivory bastard toadflax, starry white Hooker's sandwort, and the sulfur yellow of prairie rocket or sand-dune wallflower dotting the sagebrush in the photo below. 

Erysimum capitatum among the Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp Wyomingensis) and prairie junegrass

At the end of  my run, I turned back toward town a little reluctantly because I was so enjoying the wildflowers. Most are familiar, old friends I have known since childhood or since college field botany classes. Some, like that mat-forming composite with the outsized golden flower heads are new ones I have yet to learn. 

Either way, they're a wonderful Mother's Day gift, a blessing from this landscape that holds my heart. 

My word for this year is "gratitude." It is easy to be grateful for each day now that I am home. Of course, there are challenges; in particular, house renovation, which always brings surprises, and always costs more than I expected, as well as earning a living from my writing, which I haven't really mastered since Richard died. 

But those challenges can't dent my joy in being here, among a community of friends, both human and wild. In a place where I and the ravens and bluebirds belong in a cell-deep way, along with the aromatic big sagebrush, the prairie Junegrass, and the blessing of wildflowers.

All of us part of Earth's time of spring and renewal.

I wish you all that heart-whole sense of belonging and the rich connection of being at home on this extraordinary planet. 

And because it's Mother's Day, I can't forget a shout-out to my mom, Joan Cannon Tweit (1931-2011), the California girl who passed to me her passion for all plants, domestic and wild, especially native wildflowers. Thanks, Mom!

Mom, on her honeymoon in Lassen National Park, June 1952

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Road Report: Awards and Teaching

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Last Friday morning, I backed out of my garage promptly at nine am, headed for Colorado. Specifically, for the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities to attend the annual Colorado Authors' League Awards banquet. It's an eight-hour drive to Arvada, and the first six hours were glorious. (The photo at the top of the post is the Wind River Canyon, about two hours south of Cody.)

Wyoming has many spring moods, ranging from howling wind to blizzard, to bluebird-blue sky and mellow. Friday was the latter, and my state had on its spring green, freckled with wildflowers and grazing pronghorn. As I drove, I watched for soaring hawks (I saw two golden eagles and three balds), counted pronghorn until 200 and then lost track, thought about geology (it's hard to drive through Wyoming and ignore the geology, because rock layers and the structures they form are so obvious), and mused about writing and life.  

Then I got to Colorado, and I-25 turned into a major traffic jam. Those final two hours of the drive were not fun. Still, Red and I made it to the Arvada Center, where I changed into my dress and sparkly sandals, and went inside to join the throng.

It was a delight to reconnect with nature writer Mary Taylor Young, childrens' fiction and non-fiction writer Nancy Oswald, writer Carol Grever, and sociologist Eleanor Hubbard, among many others. And to share a table with poet Art Elser, and memoirist, fiction writer, and writing teacher Page Lambert and her husband John Gritts, artist and educator. 

We ate, we talked writing, we listened to keynote speaker and former Rocky Mountain News sports cartoonist Drew Litton on the creative process of cartooning. And then came the awards. 

I was a finalist in two categories: Blog (for this blog), and Essay (for "No Species Is An Island" in Humans and Nature). The competition was stiff, with fine writers in both (including Page in Essay), so I didn't expect to win either. I hoped for one award--we always hope, I think. I was honored when my name was called as the winner for Blog, and then stunned when it was called again for Essay. Wow--Thank you, Colorado Authors' League!

The next day I drove over the mountains on the familiar route between Denver and Salida, a drive Richard and I took dozens of times in our last years together as we commuted back and forth for his cancer treatments, and to care for my mom, who died the winter before Richard did. 

I reached Salida just in time to rush to my first meeting of a weekend packed with meetings, teaching, and catching up with Salida friends. When I agreed to return to work with the finalists for the Kent Haruf Memorial Writing Scholarships, I imagined having time to hang out and read and write.

Not a moment! Still, it was a rewarding, if intense weekend. Especially the time working with four talented high school writers: teaching them in workshop and consulting with them individually on their work, and then selecting a Scholarship winner and another writer as Honorable Mention. (Congratulations, Berlin VanNess of Buena Vista High School and Mike White of Cañon City High School!) I also MCed the Awards Dinner...

By the time I left late yesterday afternoon, I was exhausted. And very eager to be home in Cody. 

North Park and the Park Range yesterday evening

It's a 9-plus-hour drive home, so I wisely didn't try to do the whole thing last night. Instead, I drove to tiny Walden, in Colorado's North Park, a sea of sagebrush rimmed by mountains that reminds me a bit of my home territory. I tucked Red into an inconspicuous spot behind at the Forest Service Work Center there, climbed into my nest inside the topper, and fell asleep to the chorus of spring peepers from a nearby pond. 

My treat for getting an early start this morning was an extended stop at Split Rock National Historic Site between Rawlins and Riverton. (Split Rock is a gloriously eroded granitic dome rising above the Sweetwater River that was a landmark on the South Pass portion of the Oregon Trail.) 

Spring wildflowers blooming on Split Rock

The "seams" in the nubbly granitic dome were bright with wildflowers and I happily climbed and wandered, reconnecting with plant-friends just as I had reconnected with writer friends on Friday night and Salida friends through the weekend: spring buttercups and chickweed, round-leafed saxifrage and stoneseed, Nuttall's violets, and wax currant. 

Ranunculus (buttercup) and Cerastium (chickweed)

Meadowlarks fluted their bubbling songs over the voices of sage sparrows, and tiny fence lizards hunted for insects among the rocks. It was the perfect way to recharge my batteries for the last four hours of the drive home. 

I pulled Red into the garage at four pm and began to unload the truck. Inside, I found Shantel Durham, my wonderful painter, at work on the finishing touches of the new paint in the bedroom hallway. Once that hallway was a dark and uninviting corridor. Now, as Shantel said, "it's like the sun came out." 

The newly painted bedroom hallway (I refinished that floor myself, by hand).

That pretty much sums up how I feel about my life since moving home to Cody: It's like the sun came out. And I am very, very grateful to be here at home at last. 

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Renovation Progress: Floors and Kitchen Garden

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For the past week, I've been caretaking a retreat center and its resident cat, which means I drive out to the center twice a day, first thing in the morning to feed and play with Talks-A-Lot, the cat (she does talk--a lot!), and to check on the buildings. I drive back out again at the end of the work day to either let Talks in and feed her if it's been nice enough for her to be outside all day, or to hear her meow! meow! meow! lecture if the weather hasn't been nice and she's been stuck inside. 

As you can see from the photo at the top of the post, the view of Heart Mountain from the center is glorious, a definite bonus. Talks is quite a character, and the friends who I am caretaking for really needed a vacation, so I'm glad to be able to help out. But the twice-daily commute takes a big chunk out of my energy budget. Plus I have a respiratory allergy triggered by cats, so I'm wheezing and coughing more than normal, and that's tiring too.

All of which is why I didn't get a blog post up last week. And also why I resolved to save energy and make time for one this weekend.

Today was bedroom-flooring day. (The floor in my bedroom was the one wood floor in the house that was too badly damaged to save.) The photo above is what it looked like when Jeff Durham, my contractor, laid the first few strips this morning. They're in the middle of the floor because he was working from the the new flooring he laid last week in my en-suite-bathroom-to-be (photo below). 

Looking in the opposite direction from the first photo, toward the en-suite-bathroom, which is now ready for plumbing rough-in

While Jeff laid flooring planks, I worked on my edible garden. First I made soil in my new mini-stock tanks, using a mixture of coir bricks (shredded and compressed coconut husks, an sustainable alternative to peat moss). Once I re-hydrated the coir, I added bags of local compost made by a farmer in Greybull, on the other side of the Bighorn Basin. (Thanks to my friend Joan Donnelly, who enticed me out to the Park County Home Show last Saturday, where Chad Yost and his wife had their local compost for sale.) 

Starting soil preparation for the stock-tank edible garden (the hunks of earth in the bottom of each tank are turf cut from my front lawn where I cut out a bed to plant peonies yesterday). 

I added a bale of organic soil amendments to the coir-compost mix, and then stirred it in with a spade to made sure the soil was well blended. (My back and shoulders definitely feel the work of hefting bags and bales, schlepping garden trugs full of water to rehydrate the coir bricks, and that stirring. Let no one tell you that gardening isn't good exercise!)

Sheet mulch in place, teepees ready to unfold and fill, tomato plants in the yellow garden trug.

Then I laid out red, breathable sheet mulch to keep the moisture in the soil and warm the little tomato plants' roots, and chose four plants, one each of black cherry, Pompeii Roma, stupice, and tangerine, from the forest of tomato seedlings in my living room.

As I planted each seedling, I unfolded one of the tomato teepees, stood the plastic teepee upright around the floppy plant, and, using a watering wand in one hand, carefully filled each chamber of the teepee with water so it would stand upright and provide thermal insulation and shelter from wind and high-elevation sun for the young plant. 

When Richard was alive, we used to fill the teepees together--it goes much more easily with two people. Unless of course, one of them has a brain tumor that impairs his ability to focus and control the hose, in which case both people get very wet. But they have fun anyway. 

Filling tomato teepees by myself involves balancing the floppy plastic structure with one hand, while aiming the water into each successive tube with the other. It's quite a dance, but it works. 

By the end of the day, I had four tomato plants in the ground, each protected in their thermal shelter. Alongside them, I planted chervil, a French herb that tastes something like tarragon, but with sweet licorice overtones.

While I was in gardening-mode, I also thinned the spinach and baby turnip sprouts in the old wheelbarrow that is part of my front-entry garden, planted some spearmint in a pot there, and watered the sugar snap peas and garlic chives. (All grown from seeds selected by Renee Shepherd and her staff at Renee's Garden, my favorite seed company for their unique, delicious, thoughtfully produced, and easy-to-grow varieties. Thank you, Renee!) 

And by the end of the day, Jeff had finished my bedroom floor. (The floor still needs trim, and the walls need paint, but those will wait until after the window-replacement happens sometime in June.)

My beautiful and smooth new bedroom floor! (I won't miss the splinters and protruding nails at all...)

If all goes well, by summer, I'll have a garden bursting with healthy, beautiful food. And my house will be... okay, not finished. I can't afford all it needs. But it'll be in much better shape than I found it.

In fact, it already is: even partly-finished, the house's inner beauty shines, and it feels like a happy place. That makes me smile, and my heart proud. And it's part of my mission to leave my patch of earth--both the built environment and the natural one--in better shape than it came to me. 

The living room in this evening's lovely late light, viewed from the dining table, where I sit finishing this post... 

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Wildflowers: Hope for Hard Times

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My word for this year is gratitude, chosen to remind myself to notice and appreciate the good in the world even in--especially in--the tough times. For me, one of the best ways to prompt myself to be grateful for this life and my place in it is to get outside, preferably out of town into wilder landscapes nearby. 


Which is why after several weeks of difficult news personally and in the larger world, I went for a run yesterday afternoon instead of writing this blog post.


It worked: I started to smile when I spotted the first Easter daisies (the common name honors the season when this ground-hugging member of the Composite family blooms) flowering on the sagebrush-dotted bench between town and the Shoshone River, along with two kinds of desert-parsley, and abundant cushions of the unbeautifully named but quite lovely spiny phlox. 



Easter daisy, Townsendia exscapa, is in the photo at the top of the post; below is spiny phlox, Phlox hoodii. Notice the native bee pollinating the starry white phlox flowers on the left side of the photo.


This afternoon, a new friend and neighbor, Jane, took me on a hike up in the Shoshone River Canyon, ten minutes from town, where she had seen even more wildflowers than I saw on my Easter-afternoon run. I don't normally play hooky on a work-day, but my intuition said loudly, "Just go!" 


And what a wonderful ramble it was: We began near the Shoshone River, rushing cold and cloudy with spring runoff, and climbed up through layers of rounded glacial cobbles, soft tan shales, cliff-forming ivory and gray limestone, and then followed a draw up through more shale layers toward a distant cliffs of limestone stained pinkish-red by iron leaching from the rocks. 


The wind sweeping down the canyon was chill, the sun warm, the sky blue with fingers of cloud appearing frm the west. I could feel my spirits rise just being outside.  


 


We saw wildflowers right away, clinging to the steep walls of in the canyon, including the blue-purple Penstemon nitidus (waxleaf penstemon) in the photo above. 


As we turned up the draw and away from the road, the real show began. Two kinds of desert parsley hugged the ground, one sulfur yellow (leafy wild parsley, Musineon divaricatum in the photo below), the other creamy with purple accents (salt and pepper, or Lomatium dissectum).  



And then Jane spotted the first stunning carmine flowers of desert paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia). First just one stalk, and then clumps of stalks, and soon we saw neon-bright paintbrush stems everywhere in the grassland around us, including growing right through the wind-sheered form of a Wyoming big sagebrush in the photo below. 



Can you tell by its brilliant red color and tube-shaped floral bracts that desert paintbrush is a hummingbird-pollinated plant? Even from high overhead, that flash of red would be hard to miss, especially for hovering migrants needing a fuel stop.


Then I spotted a magenta dot on the grassy hillside above the draw, and another and another. Shooting stars! (Dodecatheon pulchellum in the language of science, and one of my all-time favorite wildflowers.)



I tried to shoot an individual shooting star with its dark "beak" of anthers and back-swept pink petals, but it wouldn't hold still in the wind. 


Just up the drainage a ways, I spotted another favorite wildflower, Nuttall's violet (Viola nuttallii), host plant for one of the classic sagebrush-grassland butterflies, Coronis Fritillary (Speyeria coronis). 



We wandered uphill, finding more wildflowers, looking at rocks, and just enjoying being outside. Jane found some limestone with mussel shell fossils, and her Golden Retriever found a toothsome chunk of deer pelt to carry and chew. 


We were discussing whether to follow a game trail farther up the drainage toward the cliffs in the distance when I looked up the canyon.


"Those clouds fingering over the ridge from the West look serious," I said, pointing. Jane agreed that it was probably time to turn back. 



A rainwater-pitted limestone boulder growing four kinds of lichen (one is silver-gray, one blaze orange, one flagger-yellow, and the smallest is black). 


We didn't hurry, taking our time to admire more wildflowers, rocks, and a trio of mountain bluebirds that appeared on a juniper snag below us, one sky-blue male and two gray females. By the time we reached the dirt road, the wind was blowing hard down the canyon, the warm sun had gone behind clouds growing from the West, and the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees. 


When we hit the paved road in the canyon bottom just below the river, we were glad to turn out backs to the wind, and to the fat drops of cold rain beginning to fall. In the time it took us to walk the last quarter-mile to the car, the wind began to gust so hard we were bent over, the rain changed to a full-out deluge mixed with hail, and the rapids in the river below threw off a fine mist of cold spray. 


Once in the shelter of her car, we laughed about being soaked on our backs and dry on front--the contrast between windward and lee sides very evident. 


Ten minutes later, I was in my own cozy house, shivering just a little from being half-soaked, and still smiling. Even the tick I found when I changed into dry clothes didn't dent my joy. 


And now, as I look over my wildflower photos to share them with you, I am still smiling, still grateful to be part of this wondrous world. 


Taking time to nurture our spirits is always important, especially when the news is grim and life full of rocky spots.


So please give yourself the gift of doing whatever makes you smile, and makes your heart sing. It'll do us all good. 



 

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Spring Garden Discoveries & A Brag

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One of the delights of buying an older house is discovering the surprises planted by previous owners. Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth (the purple flower clusters) and columbine leaves in the photo above, in a flower border now overtaken by lawn. 

I'd guess from the yard's unkempt and overgrown character that no one has done any actual gardening, or pruning, or tending anything except the lawn in this yard for a very long time. Perhaps many decades. And even the lawn isn't in great shape. 

Which means I have the delight of coming to know what may be the original mid-century modern garden plan, much like the way I am coming to know the original mid-century modern house, also neglected for a very long time.

And just as the original details of the house charmed me when I first toured it--Who could not love the vintage kitchen in the photo above, even if it was covered with grime and bad paint?--I am finding the vintage plants appearing in the yard a delight. 

Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth and columbine in the photo at the top of the post.

Or these English irises, which have been untended for so long that their rhizomes have grown into a densely packed mound in the front yard. I spent a couple of hours yesterday cleaning up and starting to weed around them.

This fall I'll carefully dig up and divide the rhizomes, and will likely end up with enough to fill an iris bed about three times the size of this one. Which is fine with me; I'd rather have irises than boring lawn any day!

The shrub above, which I think is an old-fashioned variety of flowering quince, and has been languishing in the shade of a large and sickly honey-locust tree that my arborist removed last month. Now that the shrub is getting sun, I expect it will put on quite a flower-show next spring. 

 

The peony leaves sprouting from a grass-infested triangle by the driveway. I had been contemplating planting a peony bed this fall; now I will, since they're already part of the yard flora. (The red pigment coloring these baby leaves protects their delicate inner cells from both the intense high-elevation sunlight and the cold temperatures that come with spring in the Rocky Mountains, like today's four inches of snow.)

The rhubarb I discovered the other morning when I was surveying the narrow yard off the kitchen as my prospective edible garden. I had ordered rhubarb to plant with asparagus and raspberries, so I was thrilled to find one already in situ--the more the better. 

Yup. Those tiny, tightly crinkled leaves are rhubarb.

Many of these plants are what I call "heritage" garden plants, the kind carried from place to place and traded from gardener to gardener, their roots/tubers/bulbs wrapped in damp cloth to keep them alive. Many are long-lived; individual peony and rhubarb plants, for example, may thrive for a century or more.

The happy surprise of them emerging in my neglected yard is no doubt why my mom's been on my mind more than usual. Mom was my plant-love-companion and garden inspiration: she could grow anything from ornamentals to edibles, as well as wildflowers and other native plants. 

These particular plants are all old friends, familiar from the gardens Mom tended in the house where I grew up. Same with the lilacs and bush honeysuckle that dominate this yard's overgrown hedges. She would have loved the wild chokecherries threading through them too, gifts of visiting birds. 

Mom (Joan Tweit) in the middle between Dad (on the right) and Richard (Cabe) on the left, on a visit to Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. I must have done a booksigning there, because Richard is holding a box of my books. 

Finding these plants is like having Mom with me, cheering me on as I work to restore both yard and house. (Mom died in 2011, the same year as Richard; April 3rd would have been her 86th birthday.)

It feels like this place was just waiting for me to come home and adopt it. I'm so grateful I could and did. 

****

The brag? This week I learned that I'm a finalist for the 2017 Colorado Authors League Awards in not one, but two categories: Essay and Blog. 

It's an honor to be a finalist for these awards juried by professional writers. In my two decades of living in Colorado, I won three CAL Awards; whether or not I win this time, being a finalist is an especially sweet coda to my time in the state. 

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The Awards Banquet is May 5th, and I'll be there for one last celebration of award-worthy writing with my CAL friends and colleagues. 

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Books: Turning Homeward, and Knocking On Heaven's Door

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Today, in typical spring-in-the-Rockies fashion, the weather pivoted 180 degrees from yesterday's sixty-five and sunny, into freezing rain, mist, sleet, snow, and then steady rain again. When I walked to the Post Office just a few minutes ago, the temperature was hovering just above freezing, and the cloud-blanket was beginning to clear, revealing new snow on the hillsides just above town. 

This kind of weather that makes me want to curl up on the couch and read. With that in mind, here are capsule reviews of two books that crossed my desk recently. The two are very different: one is memoir/nature writing of the best sort, thoughtful and insightful, and the other is crackling good fiction. What they share is that both books stretch boundaries, shift perspectives, and teach us things we didn't know we needed to know. Which is what makes each a great read. 

Turning Homeward, Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

As a girl growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Adrienne Ross Scanlan watched her father with the other men at Temple Zion, white prayer shawls over dark suits, "swaying and chanting their prayers." At home, she watched a different kind of movement as the tremors and other neuro-motor impacts of Parkinson's disease robbed her father of the ability to "rise from his Naugahyde recliner, walk into a room, hug his daughters, talk and laugh with friends..."

After her father died, Scanlan, by then an adult, sold her belongings, quit her job and moved West for a new start. She wound up in Seattle and began searching for her own form of healing in volunteer work to help restore the region's iconic salmon runs. She understood it as a way to practice the Jewish tradition of tikkum olam, a term that translates as ''repair of the world."

Turning Homeward chronicles what Scanlan learns about the complexities of both mending the world and living as a thoughtful and conscious human being. Her meditations on the meaning of tikkum olam, and the meaning of restoration in nature and in daily life apply to all of us. How can we as fallible human beings live with our flaws and the hurts we intentionally or not inflict on each other and the world? How do we live with the knowledge that even at our best, we cause pain and suffering, simply by being? We all eat, for example, and in the doing, we consume other lives. Even if we eat a purely plant-based diet, we eat plant embryos as we consume grain and beans, and plant flesh in roots like carrots or leaves like spinach. How do we atone for those impacts, unwitting or not?

For Scanlan, the answer is in practicing tikkum olam, consciously working to repair the world in whatever form we are called to:

The call to repair is genuine, arising from our best selves, I like to think, the part of all of us capable of acknowledging the harms we've crated without shrinking away in guilt or fear. There's no end to the damage we caused, just as there's no end to our curiosity, our capacity for good work, our intelligence, and our compassion. The reasons for despair are everywhere and profound. What's lost does matter. So does what's still here and what's still possible. ... Tikkun, I've come to learn, isn't identified by intentions but by the impact of what we hope are reparative actions.

Turning Homeward is a work of thoughtful atonement. Scanlan writes honestly and tenderly about what has not worked in mending her life, and the lives of salmon and urban streams, as well as what has. And out of despair at the havoc we have wreaked on this earth and each other, a quiet sense of hope grows in her words, the kind of active expectation of the results of conscious work that can in fact, lead to mending the wounds of the world and we humans.

Knocking On Heaven's Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Clare breathed in the smell of blood. Sharp, metallic, in the air, on her skin. She slipped her knife into the space between the joint and bone of the mare's hip—a small young female but still too much meat, more than enough for their next few days of hunting. Tonight she and Jon would feast on the rump with garlic and onion, some saltbush leaves, perhaps a mint paste... Clare felt happy thinking about her dinner. She felt...lust. A fervent yearning. Her mouth filled with saliva. A violent tenderness. Her heart expanded, blossomed, pressed against her ribcage so that she mewled without sound, kittenish. She slunk forward, barely in control, through the grass...

No, no, these were not her thoughts. 

"Cat! Cat!" Clare yelled and stood, dropping the knife, picking up her spear from the bloodied ground.

It is the 23rd Century, about 150 years after a supervirus has wiped out almost every human being on Earth. The few survivors have recreated a "utopian" paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle imbued with animism, informed by New Physics, and linked by solar-powered laptops (solarcomps) via the worldwide web.

Clare and her tribe live in New Mexico, moving with the seasons, feasting on abundant plants and wild game, and celebrating the cycles of nature. The only animals they do not hunt are the "paleos," once-extinct Paleolithic species reintroduced before the virus, creatures like the saber-toothed cat who intruded into Clare's thoughts and nearly killed her and her hunting companion at the beginning of the book. Many paleos are telepathic; as Clare says, "How could you hunt someone you could talk to?"

A widow whose young daughter died six years before, Clare has found comfort and meaning in teaching creative writing to students from around the world via the worldwide web. Now, one of her students, a younger man from her own tribe, has become her lover. Clare's life seems settled, until she is assigned to serve as quest-guide to Brad, a "lab rat" and theoretical physicist who lives in the relative comfort of what remains of the Los Alamos National Laboratory complex.

Brad, who discovered The Theory of Everything and whose mathematics describes how life could exist in "quantum non-locality," as holographic projections of actual cells. Brad, who has put off the required quest as long as possible, who prefers to think math in his office rather than hunt and sleep outdoors. Brad, who initially becomes interested in Clare simply a woman who might bear his children.

The quest the two set off on becomes so much more than a simple journey, bringing up classic conflicts: a life close to the earth versus a life of the mind, technology versus nature, organized society versus loners who live outside the culture, intuitive and sensory knowledge versus intellect, man versus woman. The story twists and turns through the landscape, through lives, through physics and Brad's risky experiment to win Clare as his own. The choices the two humans make in the aftermath of that experiment will shape their future and that of their people.

Science fiction generally doesn't interest me, but Knocking on Heaven's Door sucked me in and kept me hooked, immersed in a culture and characters I hadn't imagined I wanted to know. Sharman Apt Russell's imagined future manages to be both utopian and also startlingly contemporary, relevant and illuminating to our lives and choices today.

___ 

Two excellent reads, thanks to two authors unafraid to reach deep, think way beyond the norms, and explore the world, in very different ways. Happy reading!

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What Home Feels Like

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Back when Molly was in middle school and high school, we lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert just 35 miles north of the US-Mexico border. (There we are in the photo above in  grove of native Mexican elder trees in our backyard. My hair was still red and long then, Richard hadn't started shaving his head, and Molly had a cat named Hypoteneuse.)

Late-spring and early summer temperatures in Las Cruces can easily soar into the triple digits. Whenever I would turn woozy and white in the heat, Richard would tease me: "You're my favorite Norteña."  

The literal meaning of Norteña is a female from the North, which I am (I was born in northern Illinois at 42 degrees N latitude). In the Spanglish spoken in the border region, Norteña could also be a mild insult, meaning a foreigner, someone who doesn't belong.  

Which was true as well, though in the seven years we spent in Las Cruces, I tried to belong: I studied the history, natural history, and culture of our desert region. I wrote four books about the desert, including my favorite, Barren, Wild and Worthless, my first excursion into what I didn't know then was memoir; plus dozens of articles, and hundreds of weekly radio commentaries. I led nature walks, worked on restoration projects, and co-founded a book festival about the border region with my friend and co-honcha Denise Chávez, novelist and visionary extraordinaire. 

Still, I never quite acculturated to life at 32.32 degrees North. My body didn't love the heat; my immune system didn't love the wind-blown clouds of pollen from the non-native species, including the mulberry trees planted throughout town for welcome shade. My diurnal rhythms were confused when summer days weren't long and winter days were. 

When we moved north to Salida, Colorado, Richard's childhood home, in what he considered "that cold state way up north" (at 38.5 degrees N), I was relieved. Salida had, I thought, the best of the Southwest and enough of the Rockies to feel like home. And it did, while he was alive. 

After he died though, I grew more and more restless. I missed... something. I traveled more, trying to figure out what I was looking for. It wasn't until I spent two weeks volunteering on an ecological restoration project in Yellowstone National Park (digging out invasive weeds), that I realized what should have been obvious. 

Grubbing houndstongue, an invasive perennial, from around the base of big sagebrush in northern Yellowstone. 

I was homesick.

This Norteña missed summer evenings so long it feels like it will never get dark, until night suddenly swallows the twilight, and short winter days. The sweetly turpentine-like smell of sagebrush after warm rains. The sound of robins cheer-ee-o-ing at dawn in early spring.

The pell-mell rush as the days lengthen, and then suddenly the grass is green and all the birds sing a nearly operatic daily chorus. Until summer and they go silent in the exhausting work of feeding voracious young, when wildflowers bloom one after the other after the other in bee-mad meadows. And elk calves honk for their mothers. 

Silvery lupine and Wyoming indian paintbrush blooming among big sagebrush

The sound of male elk bugling that wheezy nasal challenge in fall, as bighorn sheep males duking it out with a loud cracking of colliding foreheads. (Such guys!) The sour-sweet smell of fallen aspen leaves wet in the first snow. 

The silence of winter nights; the howl of blizzard winds. The bite of sub-zero air on bare skin. The stars crackling bright against skies so dark they seem to swallow the earth. 

A gnarled old big sagebrush shrub hanging on through winter

After I moved home to Cody between blizzards in January, some part of me that had been tense and alert for decades relaxed. The slant of the light at this latitude (45.5 degrees N, the same as Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Illinois, and the Gulf of Maine), felt right.

The blue winter twilights, so soothing after the dazzle of sun on snow during the day. The wind whooshing in the spruce trees in my yard; the resiny smell of spruce sap as the days began to warm. The sagebrush on the hill behind my neighborhood, their small evergreen leaves gradually turning from winter's silver-gray to silver-green again.

And now that the robins are back from their southern winter homes, their cheerfully fluting voices wake me. I lie in bed in my snug spot among the big spruces and my heart fills with joy. Home for me is more than people and memories. It is the light, the rhythm of the seasons, the smells and sounds of life going about its business. 

It is something I feel in my cells, a kind of inner contentment at being in the place that is just right for me, inside and out.

Richard and I loved each other with our whole hearts. But born in Arkansas, raised in Salida, Haiti, and South Texas, my southern guy never understood the call of my particular North. Perhaps he would if he were here with me to get to know the place, but he isn't.

And in this bittersweet journey, I feel very fortunate to have found my way back home on my own. 

My bedroom (still unfinished, but quite snug)

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The Three Rs: Running, Renovation, Revision

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I went for a run today, my first since I moved home to Cody two months and two days ago. I would say it felt great to be running again, but my relationship with running is much more complicated than that.

I need to run, something I know intellectually. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to talk myself into it, each time. I have an amazing ability to find excuses and wimp out. And then I feel bad because I didn't run. 

Once I get going though and find my pace, I feel pretty good, except when I run out of breath and don't. Still, the fact that I'm out and running keeps me going, both because I am competitive and hate to quit, and because I feel pretty darned saintly to be exercising. 

The best part is after I finish, when I feel simply and unambiguously great, my body tired, but loose and limber, my mind righteous, and my spirits high because running takes me outside, and as my artist-friend Sherrie York says on her website, "outside fuels our insides." Time in nature is the best medicine for body, mind, and spirit. 

Today's run wasn't long--I did about 2.5 miles through quiet streets and down the hill to the upper bench above the Shoshone River where it winds in its shallow canyon past town. I ran through fragrant sagebrush, looking for signs of spring in the still-winter-brown high desert landscape, like the mat of dwarf phlox in the photo above, the living parts of the aged mat greening up.

I followed the city-maintained river trail with its great views of the surrounding Bighorn Basin landscape until its end, and then I headed back, slowing to a walk for the switchbacks up the steep hill, and then running through city streets to home. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from that river trail, looking southwest to Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains on the way to Yellowstone; the photo above is looking down-river in the opposite direction toward McCullough Peaks, a badlands wilderness northeast of Cody.)

On the renovation front, the biggest progress this week has been in the attic, where my contractor, Jeff, has been adding vents so the attic can breathe, which is important for all sorts of reasons, including letting the roof cool down in summer, and keeping mold from growing up there.  

The other big change is the small bathroom taking shape in my bedroom, with a washer-dryer closet next to it, and a narrow linen closet between. When it's all finished, I'll have my own little suite--bedroom, bath, laundry, and my office opening off the bedroom. 

The unused end of my bedroom before, with my office on the right. 

And now, with the walls of the bathroom and laundry center taking shape, the plumbing and wiring roughed in. 

Looking the other direction at my bed and its corner of windows that makes me feel like I'm sleeping in a treehouse...

On the writing front, I finished a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and when I turned it in, my editor wrote back to say she loved it, "and thanks for making my job easier." That's music to any writer's ears! 

The more difficult part of my writing week was yet another rejection for my memoir, Bless the Birds, with a lovely note from the editor who said the writing was beautiful, the story touching and engrossing, and the characters and sense of place powerful. But she didn't want it. 

After listening to a webinar with Brooke Warner, publisher of SheWrites Press, I think I know what's wrong and why despite all of the praise for this memoir of my heart, no editor has snatched it up: it's the economics of publishing today. Memoirs normally run between 70,000 and 80,000 words, and Bless the Birds is 97,000 words, albeit downsized significantly from 125,000 in last summer's intense revision

Brooke explained the money end in a way I hadn't heard it before. Sure, she said, a memoir or novel can be longer, but when an editor is making the calculations to sell a manuscript to the publication committee, she or he has to justify additional length in terms of some kind of great platform to drive sales, because the longer a book is, the more it costs, "and margins in publishing are already thin." 

A manuscript of more than 80,000 words, Brooke said, simply costs too much to produce. And then she added for me what was the kicker, "and people are reading shorter and shorter these days," in part, she explained, because they're reading in snatches of time between other commitments, or on a mobile device. 

So I've made the difficult decision to clear time in my schedule and dive back into a manuscript I thought I was done with. My aim: shrink the word count by more than 20 percent and make the story stronger and more compelling, more universal, as I do so.

And not shred my heart along the way; this is a love story, but it's a painful one. I owe it to the guy in the photo below, and the life we made even as brain cancer ended his, to get the story right so it can help us all live our days well and with grace, whatever our path.

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011

PS: My apologies about the issues with the comment function on this blog. It's always been annoying, and now it doesn't work at all. Sigh. Another thing to deal with in time, and thanks for your patience! 

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Renewal Inside and Out

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Spring is coming to my long-neglected house and yard. The photo above is my amazing arborist, Aaron Danforth, de-limbing one of two green ash trees in my front yard. Neither has had an arborist's attention in a long time--perhaps never, and this one has a split in its main trunk so deep that it groans when the wind blows, and spits out fist-sized chunks of rotten wood. 

Despite some windy days and a toddler with croup, Aaron, a rock-climber who became an arborist because he loves trees and loves climbing, has managed to de-limb three of the eight huge spruces in my front and back-yard, fell one entirely, and take that ash tree down to its fat trunk. Which is why I have some sizable piles of mulch to deal with (the front-yard one is to the right of the ash tree in the photo above). 

While Aaron was climbing and sawing and chipping, my contractor, Jeff Durham, installed eighteen insulated roman shades throughout the house, a job that involved quite some finagling. Retrofitting anything in a 60-year-old house is not simple. 

The shades have already made a difference in the nighttime temperatures inside, and since this house was not even slightly energy efficient when it came to me, that's a big deal.

They also look elegant. The fabric is a pewter gray color with the slubbed look of raw silk and a slight sheen. I think it's the same fabric as the roman shades I loved in the casita where I stayed for my Women's International Study Center fellowship in Santa Fe last fall with playwright DS Magid, and scholar Stanlie James

(DS and Stanlie, do you recognize that fabric?)

Jeff also replaced the non-working light and ugly pole at the end of my driveway with a new post and working solar-powered light, and framed in the en-suite bath in the unused end of my bedroom so that it's ready for wiring and plumbing rough-in. 

When the bath is finished, we'll replace the floor, which was in such bad shape we couldn't save it, and paint my bedroom. (The bookshelves in the opening on the right are in my office--I have a short commute!)

Jeff's daughter Shantel, ace painter, finished applying the soft yellow color inspired by my vintage kitchen cabinets to three walls of the living/dining room (it's a long room, so that's a lot of wall!), and then painted the end wall of the dining room in the more sagey of the two green shades that I'm using as accent colors throughout the house. 

The color is less minty in person than in this photo

Then she painted another wall in the breakfast nook in that same soft yellow, brightening the space considerably.

 

While Aaron sawed, chipped, and felled, Jeff built, and Shantel painted, what was I doing? When I wasn't coordinating the restoration work and ordering supplies, I was at my desk writing. I finished a feature article for WILDFLOWER Magazine, and my monthly column for Houzz, which you can read here

Best office ever...

This weekend I took a break from writing to join the restoration work. I rolled my wheelbarrow out of the garage, grabbed my leaf rake and scoop shovel, and went to work spreading fragrant spruce-bough mulch on the eroded and bare soil in my yard resulting from my too many trees. 

Mulch will not only shade the soil from both hot summer sun and winter cold, it'll help retain moisture and allow rain and snow-melt to sink in rather than running off. Its sheltering qualities will make the community of micro- and macro-organisms living below the surface happier, and they thus will work their own brand of renewal magic, making the soil healthier for my remaining trees and all else rooted there. 

As I spread mulch in my east-side yard, I discovered neon-green daylily sprouts along the house foundation, plus daffodils poking up darker green leaves. Both are emerging in response to sunlight, which hasn't reached that area in decades. 

By the time I had reduced the front-yard mulch pile to almost nothing late this afternoon, my back and shoulders were protesting. So I stowed my tools, came inside and cleaned up, and made myself dinner. And then headed for that long teal couch in the living room, where I sit now with my feet up, writing this post and admiring the stars in the night sky out the window. 

I feel very grateful to have the work of writing and helping bring this house and yard back to life. There is much hard work ahead, but I am heartened by how far we have come. Spring is coming, and with it the promise of renewal. We can all take heart from that. 

Arabella the Christmas cactus thinks it's spring already!

 

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